Diplomat Makes the Case for Saving Democracies

Robert Gelbard ’64 returns to campus to remind students, and others, that democracy should not be taken for granted

Retired ambassador and Colby alumnus Robert Gelbard mingles before his speech during this year’s Senator George J. Mitchell Distinguished International Lecture Sept. 12. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)
By Abigail Curtis and Bob KeyesPhotography by Ashley L. Conti and Gabe Souza
September 19, 2023

Retired ambassador, longtime diplomat, public servant, and Colby graduate Robert Gelbard ’64, LL.D ’02, returned to campus last week to deliver the George J. Mitchell Distinguished International Lecture for the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and to discuss his career and the precarious state of democracy.

He also met with students who are interested in international affairs and may be considering a career in the foreign service.

Gelbard and his wife, Alene, are longtime supporters of Colby. Gelbard served on the Board of Trustees for eight years, and Alene Gelbard spent 14 years as a member of the Museum Board of Governors.

Audience members pay attention as Robert Gelbard ’64 speaks during this year’s Senator George J. Mitchell Distinguished International Lecture Series in Parker Reed in Schair-Swenson-Watson Alumni Center. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)

“While Alene is not a Colby alum, we both feel tremendous relations and tie-ins to the school. We are tremendously impressed with how it has developed and grown over the years,” Gelbard said before sharing lunch with students at DavisConnects.

The Goldfarb Center invited Gelbard to speak about the state of democracies around the globe, the increasing threat of extremism and growing authoritarianism, and the impact of both on the United States.

 ‘We are clearly at an inflection point where we must all be involved.’

Robert Gelbard ’64

Gelbard, who lives in Washington, D.C., is a decorated public servant with a long and distinguished career in diplomacy and democracy-building, specializing in conflict and wars, and conflict resolution. In his talk, he said that democratic governments are under threat across the globe as never before, and he called the current situation an existential crisis.

Gelbard drew on his experience of serving in countries that are in the process of transitioning to democracy to emphasize the importance of the rule of law and economic opportunity in ensuring that democracies survive and thrive.

Retired ambassador Robert Gelbard ’64 shared lunch with students at DavisConnects. He urged them to take a variety of courses across the College and not to make assumptions about how their lives and careers will play out. (Photo by Gabe Souza)

He began his service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia after graduating with a history degree from Colby. Soon after, he joined the Foreign Service and worked his way up to become ambassador to Indonesia, East Timor, and Bolivia. He later earned a master’s of public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School. He served in a variety of Foreign Service roles during a career spanning several decades, filling positions under Presidents Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Barack Obama, including as Clinton’s special representative for the Balkans.

In 1985, he became deputy assistant secretary of state for South America. Reagan named him ambassador to Bolivia until 1991, when he returned to Washington as the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs.

As the special representative of the president and secretary of state for implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords, he was responsible for all aspects of U.S. government policy development and civilian implementation in the Balkans.

Gelbard has been a member of numerous U.S. delegations to the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development, particularly the Economic Policy Committee, and he served on the U.S. delegation to the Conference on International Economic Cooperation. He also was detailed part-time to the President’s Council of Economic Advisers in 1978.

Alison Beyea, executive director of the Goldfarb Center, said Gelbard shared many qualities and traits with Mitchell, including his willingness to mentor future leaders. “He says ‘yes’ to every student, and that’s a lot of yeses,” Beyea said.

Mitchell, a former U.S. Senator and revered statesman, addressed the audience in a prerecorded video.

In his remarks, Gelbard said he first encountered the fragile nature of democracy during his time in the Peace Corps in Bolivia, when he witnessed a coup within three months of his arrival. He was saddened and shocked to see tanks in the street. “We generally take for granted that democracy is the norm, the usual way of life,” he said. “But it is not. And it has been far from that. Democracy is a relatively new phenomenon, historically.”

He said his experiences across the globe have reinforced the precarious nature of democracy. And at this moment in history, democracy is being challenged as never before—Gelbard called it “a global existential struggle”—and cited the Russian invasion of Ukraine, China’s policy of party over institutions, the violent stifling of human rights in Myanmar, Niger, Sudan, and Iran, growing authoritarianism in Nicaragua, military coups in Africa, and the challenge to free and fair elections in the United States.

Statesman and former Sen. George J. Mitchell addressed the audience in a prerecorded video prior to Robert Gelbard’s address. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)

“There is a constant conflict between both people who want democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental rights versus those striving for top-down control and rule through fiat, or through autocratic capture,” he said in his lecture, adding, “We are clearly at an inflection point where we must all be involved.”

He attributed the root of the rise of authoritarianism and loss of confidence in democracies to the unmet expectations of people around the world, “expectations that were often unrealistically set by political leaders.”

At the heart of successful democracies are their institutions, he said, with the justice sector at its core, buttressed by media and civil society. Strong democratic institutions that operate independently serve to collectively bolster all, he said, adding that the single most corrosive influence against democracy is corruption.

“In all nations, corruption is the accelerant that fuels the weakening and destruction of democracy and its institutions,” he said.

Corruption undermines integrity and truth and causes a loss of confidence and trust in government and leadership. And while free and fair elections are the backbone and the essential starting point of any democracy, elections are “only a start,” Gelbard said. “The true essence of a democracy is in fact its strong institutions.”

The day after he delivered his talk, Gelbard met with first-year and sophomore students who are interested in global economics and government. He urged them to take a variety of courses across the College and not to make assumptions about how their lives and careers will play out. He told the students his diplomatic career was more by chance than design.

While serving in the Peace Corps in Bolivia, he attended a wedding in La Paz. There, he took the Foreign Service exam—and passed. “And then I thought,’Let’s see how it goes.’ I thought it would last as long as it was fun, and I turned out to have an extraordinary and wonderful career.”

Sign up to read the latest each week.